Chopper in fatal crash not equipped for risky flying
THE Vietnam War-era helicopter that plummeted into the ocean in darkness and during severe winds last month, killing all five people on board, did not have the technology to survive risky conditions.
Aviation sources close to Brisbane pilot David Kerr, who was killed in the September 6 crash, told The Courier-Mail neither he nor the helicopter was rated to fly under instrument flight rules, which are required when cloud and darkness reduces visibility to dangerous levels.
And there are strong doubts as to whether Mr Kerr was qualified to fly at night at all, even in clear weather, meaning he should have been on the ground at least 10 minutes before "last light".
A Courier-Mail investigation revealed the 1966-built, restored Bell UH-1H Iroquois helicopter, known as a Huey, was certified in mid-October last year for day flying only.
The Huey was flying after dusk in turbulent weather when it crashed into the sea near Anna Bay, south of Port Stephens in New South Wales.
All five people on-board were killed, including Mr Kerr's friends - ex-police detectives Jamie Ogden and Grant Kuhnemann - and Sydney couple Jocelyn Villanueva and Gregory Miller, who was looking to buy the Huey.
The flight time and severe weather have raised the likelihood the pilot found himself in low visibility conditions that pushed him beyond his qualifications and the helicopter's capabilities.
Photographs obtained by The Courier-Mail of the helicopter's instrument panel from earlier this year appeared to be missing some night flying equipment, according to one pilot.
And the artificial horizon - a must for night flying - was on the wrong side, he said.
Adding to the mystery of the crash, another source close to Mr Kerr said the pilot of about eight years previously cancelled flights in bad weather and only flew by daylight.
Under Civil Aviation Safety Authority rules, aircraft not certified to fly at night must be on the ground 10 minutes before "last light" - the aviation term for after sunset.
Instrument flight rules kick in when poor light or cloud cuts visibility below safe levels. Pilots need to be qualified to fly in those conditions, primarily using instruments, and the aircraft needs to be certified.
Australian Warbirds Association chief executive Mark Awad said Mr Kerr's Huey was certified a year ago for day flying only and documents showed it was at the time not intended for night flying.
The Association is responsible for issuing certificates of airworthiness for limited category ex-military aircraft, as well as vetting and approving warbird operators for commercial adventure flights.
"While we do not want to prejudice the investigation, we feel that it's a reminder to all pilots that proper pre-flight planning can prevent serious mishaps and accidents like this," Mr Awad said.
"It's quite distressing that the accident occurred and there was such a substantial loss of life."
Mr Kerr had a commercial helicopter licence, but was not approved for adventure flights.
BIG NIGHT OUT PLANNED
Mr Kerr had originally planned to stop over on the night of the flight in the Hunter Valley before flying to Sydney the next day for a boozy night with mates, sources said.
It was to be his last flight in the Huey, which he had sold and was ferrying to a new owner. The party planned to return on a commercial flight.
Mr Kerr took off from Archerfield Airport about 2.30pm, refuelling at Coffs Harbour before flying into fading light and strong winds whipped up by a cold front.
He struck trouble while flying through controlled airspace near Williamtown, home to a Royal Australian Airforce base, which is co-located at Newcastle Airport.
Defence owns the runway, authorises flights to land and runs air traffic control.
At some stage, Mr Kerr decided to fly direct to Bankstown Airport near Sydney, 40 minutes away from the crash site, instead of stopping over in the Hunter Valley.
Minutes before last light, the Huey's pilot asked air traffic control for clearance through Williamtown air space and to be allowed to climb higher to "keep the tailwind on me," a recording of the radio call reveals.
A tailwind can boost the groundspeed of a helicopter, speeding up the flight.
Air Traffic Control told the pilot to switch frequencies to request authorisation. He then called Clearance Delivery - the air traffic control agency responsible for issuing airways clearances - and asked to transit through the airspace along a coastal transit lane.
A Defence spokesman said the pilot was immediately issued the clearance and continued tracking into the base's airspace via the requested coastal corridor.
But minutes later, the pilot requested and was granted an amended airways clearance to track from a position near the Tomaree Peninsula - about 12km from the crash site - direct to Bankstown Airport.
The spokesman said the pilot did not request to land at Newcastle Airport and was not held up. "Air Traffic Control did not issue any holding instructions to the pilot … or delay the aircraft," she said.
Radar images indicate the Huey turned left out to sea off Birubi Point at Anna Bay before crashing, raising speculation the pilot was operating in darkness and rough weather.
"When you go over water it is pitch black and there is no reference to the horizon," one pilot, who asked to remain anonymous told The Courier-Mail. "It is like driving down the M1 without lights."
Flight tracking data indicates the helicopter was being thrown around in severe turbulence, with both its ground speed and altitude dramatically rising then falling before crashing. It ascended to more than 3500ft (1km) before falling at a catastrophic rate.
By 6.15pm - 13 minutes after last light at Williamtown and 14 minutes after his last radio call - the Huey had dropped off the radar.
The time of the flight has left one helicopter pilot close to Mr Kerr, Warbirds Aviation Australia's Kim Rolph-Smith, questioning why he would risk flying in the dark into severe winds. "What I can't understand is why he left so late when he was going into known conditions that (were) not so great," Mr Rolph-Smith said.
MAST BUMP THEORY
CASA in 2015 tightened its rules around flying in night conditions in the wake of the shocking 2011 helicopter crash at Lake Eyre, which killed the pilot and two passengers filming an ABC documentary.
It found the pilot "probably became spatially disoriented" on a dark night.
A year later, a safety campaign warned that pilots who fly outside of their qualification into low-visibility condition that dictated "instrument flight rules" was a "prominent safety issue."
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau had at the time recorded 111 instances in a decade, including 18 serious incidents.
But aviation sources have also questioned whether the stricken Huey became a victim of "mast bump", a problem linked to the helicopter model.
That is where in severe turbulence causing low-G conditions, or during abrupt movements, excessive flapping of the blades is followed by the rotor mast and blades severing, breaking up the aircraft.
A police boat spotted the tail rotor of the Huey the morning after the crash, while a rescue helicopter spotted the main airframe of the helicopter 45 minutes later.
The tail boom has been recovered, and police divers have recovered debris and the remains from two bodies.
ATSB investigators are looking into the value of recovering any more of the wreckage and will release a preliminary report this month.